Fairly Serious note: Hi everyone. I’ve done it again. I’ve gone ahead and written too much for just one post. Ever get into a groove and you find you’ve got more stuff to spew out the ends of your fingertips than your self-imposed word limit will allow? Well, that’s what’s happened here, so this is part 1 of How to Read (Some) Books. Keep your internet antennae pointed northward for part 2 soon.
The question of how to read a book is one that seems self-evident until you think about how you are actually reading. I will preface this post by saying that the discussion below probably doesn’t apply to anyone reading books for anything other than academic purposes. Also, many points in this post are adapted from a fruitful class discussion led by Dr. Carla Nappi in UBC’s Department of History last year. This is the long way of reading a book, by the way. If you want tips on how to get through a book quickly because you don’t have infinite time, check out Grad School Ninja Dr. Susan Nance’s post on How to Raid an Academic Book.
The Book as an Object
This is probably my favourite thing about reading books and with the proliferation of non-analog book technologies (you know, Kindles and the like) the objecthood of books is changing as is the very definition of “book”. I’ll save my rant on the longevity of printed materials vs. electronic materials for another day. The book you have in your hand, assuming it is a printed book, has features about it that make it unique from every other book ever published. A great many, if not all, of these features are conscious and purposeful choices made by author, editor, and publisher. Everything from its size and weight, colour, covers, illustrations, fonts, paper quality, and any other visual aspect of the book is contrived by someone for some purpose. The question(s) to ask here is, why have these choices been made? Am I supposed to infer something about this book by the way it looks/feels? I think that if a book does its job well it will convey something by its very presence and presentation, what that is will depend on the book but we all know that the most basic of all literary clichés – judging a book by its cover – has something to do with which books we actually pick up. So, consider what a book’s physicality says before you even read one word. As for electronic books, I don’t really know what to make of those yet since I don’t utilize them all that much. What I can say, though, is that I much prefer those that mimic the printed versions with full colour and illustrations (when applicable) and pagination that is in sync. I guess I can’t shake the feeling that electronic texts should be companions to their printed counterparts because this is how I use them. I would love to have print and electronic copies of everything I own and use. The searchability of an ebook is wonderful, but I think I’m getting off topic here. Oh, smell the book. Yes, smell it. I love the smell of books, old and new. While I don’t think/know that publishers are trying to accomplish anything with the way their books smell, it is nevertheless a part of the sensorial experience that should not be overlooked.
What is Written on the Outside?
This speaks directly to the first point above about the physicality of the book except, this time, the reader is becoming more involved in the written rhetoric of the book, at least on the outside. Things that you normally find on the outside of an academic or scholarly work (assuming it still has its dust jacket or is printed in paperback) are: title and author (obviously); another – usually well known and authoritative – author’s name with the phrase “Foreword By” or “Introduction By”; some sort of synopsis of the book’s contents; endorsements from reviewers; and publication information. This just about does it for the wordiness of a book’s covers, but you can glean all sorts of information from this. For instance, what is the author’s cachet within their field or at large? Take a look at how big the name is on the front. If the author’s name (especially the surname) is in a significantly larger font than the title, chances are you’re looking at a big deal. Take this book, for instance:
Foucault is a well established theorist and this cover makes that abundantly clear. Nobody cares that his first name is Michel, only that we are talking about Foucault. The Foucault. The work itself is also likely the most well known of all Foucault’s works so the matching of fonts for the title and name is not surprising, even if they are different sizes. Please note, however, that these are not set rules by any means. I could put a book out and have my name in 160pt font and the title in 12pt. That doesn’t mean I’m any good or well known, nor does it always mean that for every book you see. I merely am pointing to some guidelines you can look out for. Here’s a good example of someone who is a very big (living) deal whose name is not enlarged on the cover.
Check out also the blurb on Foucault’s book from Richard Poirier of The New York Times Book Review. I’m not going to lie to you, I have no idea who Richard Poirier is but he works for The New York Times Book Review so this fact gives Foucault’s work not only academic legitimacy (which it had years ago) but also popular cultural and literary legitimacy. This is, perhaps, the kind of work that is read widely by those inside and outside of academia and can likely be found on the paltry Philosophy sections of your favourite big chain gift shop, er, book store (along with perhaps a selection of Nietszche and Twilight and Philosophy). So, I googled Richard Poirier while I was thinking of something else to say and it turns out he was a pretty big deal in his own write (heh, heh) inside and outside of the academy. Also, he’s dead. So, for people who aren’t as dumb as me his endorsement of Foucault would have more impact.
Sticking with the Foucaultian example, I’ll talk about the introduction/foreword. As I’ve pointed out above, many times a book’s importance will be judged by its foreword. Since it’s been established that Foucault’s a big deal, an introduction by him should be like academic gold (note to young scholars who haven’t looked up Foucault yet and are hoping for a blurb some day: he’s long dead and he likely wouldn’t have done it anyway. Move on). This is the case with the next example I have provided.
Who is Georges Canguilhem? Who cares? His book’s got an intro from Foucault! Actually, Canguilhem was a big deal modern French philosopher, but he was also well known as Foucault’s supervisor and mentor.
At this point you’d do well to have a look at the various folks who have given their endorsement to the work at hand. This is usually found on the back cover and will usually run the gamut from well-respected publications (see above New York Times Book Review) and/or established names within a given field. A word of caution here: not all academic books have been endorsed by widely recognized publications or people. There are many books and authors whose work has extremely limited appeal and will thus be read by an equally limited audience. These are the hipsters of academia (not really). What this actually means is that the field is relatively small and many working within it are known mostly to each other. This does not mean, however, that you are barred from reading the book if you do not work within the field or you shouldn’t read it because you don’t recognize the names on the endorsements or foreword. Every academic book, regardless of its level of prestige (ugh, I hate that word) is reviewed, introduced, and endorsed by the best people available and willing to do such things. Of course there are bad academic books and bad people introducing and endorsing them, but these are things you learn by picking them up and actually reading them, which is in the next part of this post.